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These Maps Show You How to Live, Not Just Where

Whether you live in a map culture or not, it’s clear maps can change the way we interact with and change the world.

It used to be that paper maps were the free gifts that came with your new compass, graphically representing geography via points, lines, and fire-breathing dragons—all of which indicated orientation, distance, latitude, longitude, and the sheer vastness of uncharted territory. But today’s multidimensional digital maps are comprehensive, interactive, and they’ve got the compass built right in. Plus, they’re changing the way we interact with our environments and with each other.


According to Di-Ann Eisnor, the founder of map-based driving app Waze, “People really do want to help each other, and if they feel like they are part of something that is helping make a difference, they become passionate about it.” With the power of crowdsourcing, any map can be up-to-date and more helpful than the ones we used to keep in our glove boxes. That’s why design activist Wendy Brawer likes to think about maps in a much more ambitious way: as community-organizing tools.

Image via Green Map System screenshot.

Since 1995, Brawer has compiled the Green Map System, which inspires users to hand-draw and digitally map local sustainable businesses across 68 countries in 924 diverse locations, from New York to Beijing. The Green Map System brings communities together to keep track of local eco-friendly stores, farmers markets, recycling sites, gardens, and heritage sites—encouraging us to frequent more socially responsible businesses, while raising awareness about the potentially toxic status of major urban areas.

Ultimately, maps like Brawer’s do a lot more than visually represent the cities we call home: They change the way we approach our urban lives. Meanwhile, other maps help us conceptualize a kinder, more innovative future. Visual storytelling platform Maptia has partnered with Sony’s Global Imaging Ambassadors to capture videos and photographs of impact solution trends, then make them searchable across an interactive map. By developing an elegant method of cartography out of traffic robots solving gridlock issues in DR Congo,* skyscraper cemeteries addressing land availability issues in Japan, and vertical gardens in Singapore creating harmony between nature and the urban landscape, Maptia encourages people around the world to see what’s happening where, then dream up their own local solutions.

"Supertrees" photo by Suzanne Lee. Image via Maptia screenshot.

But despite myths to the contrary that suggest we’ve mapped every possible inch of the planet, there are many areas—particularly in undeveloped, rural locales—that bear no street names, building numbers, or road markers. In such mysterious environs, it can feel a bit like the wild west; it’s a challenge to find what you’re looking for even on a good day. So in times of crisis, strategic, efficient relief efforts were next to impossible.

That is, until now. This past February, civilians tweeted 900 times a minute about the depth of water (as well its motion patterns and locations) caused by floods in Jakarta. Then scientists turned all that data into real-time flood maps that made it possible to speed up recovery work, while identifying future flood-prone areas so that they could be secured before any devastation occurred. Similarly, after a typhoon hit the Philippines in 2013, over 410 volunteers made nearly a million additions to a free online map on OpenStreetMap.org, charting areas in need of aid. The volunteers clarified safe passageways for field workers to over 30,000 buildings. And, following the 2013 earthquake in Haiti, Nepali doctorate student Nama Budhathoki felt compelled to map his own city to prevent future catastrophe. He developed what he now calls the Kathmandu Living Labs. To foster a friendly environment open to crowdsourcing, the Kathmandu Living Labs hold meetup groups and “Mapping Parties.”

Mapping party. Image via Flickr user Kathmandu Living Labs.

Perhaps because of its social atmposphere, which led to a stream of informative updates from citizen scientists, the project proved critical in the wake of the spring 2015 earthquakes that devastated so much of Nepal. According to pri.org, Budhathoki has said, “I think a lot of people have started to understand the value of a map [because of] this earthquake. It’s not really a map culture here, but now, for rescue operations to distribute the needed materials—even to plan the recovery process—a lot of people have started talking about the [power of] maps."

Whether you live in a map culture or not, it’s clear maps can change the way we interact with and change the world. It’s up to us to ensure those changes are for the better.

Illustration by Brian Hurst
*This sentence has been updated to clarify that this initiative solved gridlock issues in DR Congo.

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